Should the Public Know?

Frame grab

“The public has a right to know when officers abuse the public trust” – Tom Dart quoted in the Chicago Tribune, April 15, 2016

In April, Tom Dart, Sheriff, Cook County Jail, released videos to the press of officers who had been found to have committed prohibited acts against offenders.  The videos which made a splash on the internet were quite graphic.  The incidents involved staff who had been fired as a result of their actions.

Sheriff Dart, who is an attorney, only released the videos after a civilian review board had sustained the administrative action of firing the former detention officers.

Here is one of the videos Sheriff Dart released. WARNING: It contains explicit language and violence. Source: YouTube

Faith Based Events

You can imagine the outcry from many when he did this.  The correctional officer union in New York State is fighting to keep all instances of staff disciplinary records out of the public arena.  The former Secretary of Public Safety in Maryland, I am told, was not able to dismiss officers who had been criminally indicted for the introduction of contraband at the Baltimore City Jail because of a union contract.

Florida is not immune to problems with corrections officers. Here are some of recent headlines:

I am the first to add that you must protect staff while any disciplinary process is ongoing, but maybe Tom Dart has something.  Maybe corrections departments need to be more open and transparent of our foibles.

I remember the “heat” I took when after arriving at an institution where there were many serious allegations of physical abuse occurring during the transportation of offenders; I directed all transport operations be videotaped.   This was 1989 and videotaping such a significant operation to and from the airport twice a day was not a cheap or an easy task.  I was so naïve, I did not ask for permission to tape the movements, I just did it.  But guess what, the allegations of abuse dropped to almost zero.

We in corrections have been insular for too long.  We complain that no one understands what we do or appreciate the offenders in our custody. For years, we have told ourselves we do it because we have to protect the sanctity of the institution and no one will understand our actions.  After many years, I have come to the conclusion we often do so out of fear.

This is not to say there are not many reasons not to release information to the press, advocacy groups or others making inquiries; such as not to compromise the security of the institution, to protect the rights of individuals who are subject to possible criminal sanctions and to ensure that laws surrounding privacy are not violated.  But, there are many more occasions we can and should be more forthcoming in our revelations.  While we will occasionally get burnt in these revelations, the price is a small one for becoming more transparent.

I know firsthand most people do not understand the dynamics of prison culture and subculture, nor do I expect them to, but I also know with solid explanation and evidence you can make a case for why you did what you did.  Reasonable people will generally understand.  Unreasonable people or advocates will not, but by being as transparent as possible, you do due diligence.

I am always reminded that those of us working in corrections are public servants, we work for the public.  We cannot have it both ways, we cannot complain that no one understands what we do but then close the door on those who ask questions we are uncomfortable in answering.

So does Sheriff Tom Dart have it right?  I don’t believe I would have had the “courage” to do what he did and release the videos before they became discoverable, but when I think about it why not.  Yes, there may be pending civil action, but if there is an attorney, the videos will become discoverable anyway – it will be turned over to counsel.

So only time will say if Tom Dart has it right in his revelation of videos involving errant behavior of former officers who were found to have committed the prohibited act of abusing offenders.  But personally, I applaud his actions.   He took action to expose the abuse of a very small group of staff toward offenders and in doing so not only did he become more transparent, he demonstrated to the public he was not going to tolerate these actions.  He also demonstrated to the staff he was not going to tolerate the behavior.

His action tells good staff that he appreciates the hard and difficult job they do each and every day, by not tolerating the errant actions of a few.  He tells the staff who work to do their jobs by staying between the lines they are worthy of praise.  He tells staff at the same time he is not going to let those who do things outside the lines pull them down into the morass.  Those who do bad love to tarnish the good; Tom Dart said no more.  So perhaps he does have it right.  Thank you Sheriff Dart.

[vc_message message_box_style=”3d” message_box_color=”turquoise”]By Art Beeler to, May 20, 2016

The opinions expressed by Art Beeler are strictly his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the SouthFloridaReporter.[/vc_message]